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UPDATE: Despite power shutoffs, fires spread in California

As thousands of Californians remained without power and officials predicted more outages, additional wildfires broke out in northern and southern California early Oct. 24. Major evacuations were ordered as the fires burned in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, and in San Bernardino County, northeast of Los Angeles.

California Public Utilities Commission Executive Director Alice Stebbins told commissioners that more power shutoffs may be on the way starting late Oct. 26 through Oct. 28 and that an estimated 680,000 customers could be without power in 32 counties across the state. "The current forecast is this will be a very large wind event," Stebbins said, noting that winds could reach 40-60 mph, climbing to 70 mph in higher elevations.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, reported that the Kincade Fire, an expanding blaze of 10,000 acres, started at 4:26 a.m. PT on Oct. 24 northeast of Geyserville, Calif., in Sonoma County in Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s service territory.

Residents in the community of Geyserville were ordered to evacuate as the fire threatened structures and power lines.

East of Los Angeles, meanwhile, firefighters were battling the Old Water Fire, which started at 4:53 a.m. PT on Oct. 24 in San Bernardino County. Fire units from the San Bernardino National Forest and the county were responding, but high Santa Ana winds were expected to complicate their efforts. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for part of the county.

The causes of both fires are undetermined, officials said.

Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, a PG&E Corp. subsidiary, began cutting off power to thousands of customers shortly after 2 p.m. PT on Oct. 23. After the shutoffs began, the utility said it expected that 179,000 customers in 17 counties would lose power, but more could lose power if the wind storm damages equipment that was not de-energized.

PG&E warned customers to plan for several days of outages, but the company had a goal of restoring power within 48 hours of the shutoffs.

Governor weighs in

In Southern California, Edison International subsidiary Southern California Edison Co. reported on Oct. 24 at 12:45 p.m. PT that 26,786 customers had lost power, including 7,270 in San Bernardino County, and said that it was considering power shutoffs to more than 386,000 additional customers in Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

Sempra Energy subsidiary San Diego Gas & Electric Co. reported at 1 p.m. PT that it had shut off power to 7,294 customers and was considering shutting off another 35,377 customers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom sent an Oct. 24 letter to the CEOs of PG&E Corp., Edison International and SDG&E, accusing their utilities of failing to provide sufficient resources to customers during power shutoffs and to coordinate with state, local and tribal governments.

"The unacceptable scope and duration of the recent PG&E public safety power shutoffs, combined with inconsistent application by all three of California's IOUs of previously agreed protocols for [public safety power shutoff action, have undermined efforts to coordinate with first responders to protect public safety during these events," Newsom said.

PUC approves new wildfire surcharge

While the fires spread, the CPUC unanimously approved a nonbypassable charge to collect either $497.8 million or $902.4 million annually through 2035 from ratepayers to defray wildfire damages, depending on PG&E's eligibility to participate in the wildfire mitigation fund. In order to do so the utility must exit bankruptcy proceedings without raising its rates, under a condition imposed by the state legislature.

Signed by Gov. Newsom on July 12, Assembly Bill 1054 established a $21 billion fund to help the utilities pay wildfire damage claims. Half the fund will be collected from ratepayers and the other half from utility shareholders.